I served a small mill-village church in the 1980's in Glendale, a dying mill-village just outside of Spartanburg, SC. Worship was at 10, with Sunday school following (I had another church nearby with worship at 11). I wold always arrive at the church around 9 a.m., cup of coffee in hand, and sit on the steps to greet the "old guys" who got there about 9:15. These were five older men in the church, the youngest being around 68 and the oldest in his late 80s. They had been life-long friends, and I loved to sit, listen to their stories, and throw sin some of my own. For around 30 minutes we would stand or sit outside on the steps and tell tall tales, actual events, parables, and lies. Sometimes it was hard to tell which was which, but it didn't really matter.
I remember one time talking about things we had in our homes that we remembered for the first time. "I remember getting our first tv set," one of the guys said. "It was huge, weighed about 500 pounds, and had a tiny black and white screen that took forever to warm up." "I remember when we got our first radio," another chimed in. "Used to listen to Arthur Godfrey on that thing." "I remember when my coffee-maker didn't automatically grind the beans for me," I said. "I used to have to grind them myself in my electric grinder the night before and put the grounds into the coffee-maker so it could automatically brew the coffee and have it ready for me in the morning when I woke up. Finally got one that grinds the beans and brews the coffee for me," I said. "Yep, them was the hard ol' days." One of the old guys looked at me and said, "How do you live with yourself?"
One Sunday morning one of my friends pulled out a pocket knife, a single-blade one, and started cleaning and trimming his fingernails the way all of us older guys do it- the point carefully scraping along the underneath side, back by the skin, getting all the dirt and grease out from the previous week, then the blade being dragged up underneath the nail causing little bits of fingernail to splay out from the edge, then carefully cutting all that off.
"Let me see your knife," I asked my friend, in that telling-yet-asking way we old guys have. He folded the knife closed and handed it to me. I reopened it and looked at it. It was a nice knife- shiny sharp blade, wooden handle with carvings on each side, and the requisite metal cap over each end. On the blade near the handle joint was stamped the name of the manufacturer, and there was the little fingernail indention along the blunt edge of the blade to help you open it. "Nice knife," I said. "Yep," he replied. "Actually belonged to my grandfather who bought it in the 1880's. He gave it to his son, my father, who gave it to me, and one day soon I plan to give it to my son, who will give it to my grandson. It will have been in our family for five generations then. Imagine that. Same knife, five generations."
I looked again at the knife. "This knife is over a hundred years old," I said. "It's in great shape!" "Yep," he said. "I keep it oiled and sharpened so that it will last. Of course, over the years it's had a few new handles and a few new blades, but it's still the same knife."
A few new handles, a few new blades. I wondered if his grandfather would recognize the knife his grandson held.
I told this story to a friend of mine, and he said, "It's the spirit of the knife that counts, I guess." I said that I thought it was because the knife still did the same things.
I thought about this early this morning as I thought about the Church. It has been handed down for 200 generations now, and we do not look like the church that met in the home of Philemon (Philemon 1:2....well, since it only has one chapter, I guess I could say Philemon 2), but yet it is the same church. Like that knife, we still do the same things- worship and praise God, pass the faith on to others and teach the next generation, serve those in need, care for each other, stand for justice and mercy (always two things hard to combine). But we do it differently than the previous generations, and the next ones will do it differently from us.
Like my friend's knife probably did not start out with a stainless steel blade with the thumbnail indention, or the handle with a stamped wood carving on it, it still cut string and rope and cleaned fingernails for generations.
I think about that as I think about how the church is changing today. It is not the church I grew up in as a child, teen, and young adult. And it is not the church I started serving almost 34 years ago. I don't recognize a lot of the music, I struggle to master the technology, and I have a harder time texting when I really like to talk face-to-face. And the world around has changed, too. Growing up for me, summer was the slowest time of the year for families, and the busiest time of the year for churches. Churches used to hire "summer youth workers" to do nothing but lead the youth in the summertime because the kids had nothing to do. Now most churches shut down their youth ministry in the summer because kids are so busy. But people, much more creative than me, are constantly finding new handles and new blades, so that we worship and praise and care and teach and invite and love and serve and proclaim.
I just pray to the Lord above all time that, like my friend's knife, he will keep me sharp.